A Mutable Feast




BOSTON — Ernest Hemingway was a hoarder. His own prose style may have been spare and economical, but he was unable to part with the words, printed or written, of just about anyone else. According to his fourth wife, Mary, he was incapable of throwing away “anything but magazine wrappers and three-year old newspapers.” A trove of some 2,500 documents collected and preserved at Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s farm outside Havana, and now digitized and newly available at the Hemingway Collection in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum here, includes diaries, letters, lists, telegrams, insurance policies, bank statements, passports, tickets to bullfights and the Longchamps racecourse in Paris, a brochure from a swimming pool filter company, a page of his son Patrick’s homework and seemingly every Christmas card Hemingway ever received.

“Was he a pack rat? Absolutely, absolutely,” Susan Wrynn, the curator of the Hemingway Collection, said last week. “We can only be grateful. But if you had to live with it, it would drive you crazy.”

The digitized copies, which arrived last year, are the second big delivery of Hemingway material to the collection. An earlier batch in 2008 contained many more letters and some important manuscripts, including an alternate ending for “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

“There’s no real bombshell in the new material,” said Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University and the general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project. “The value is in the texture of dailiness, the way it rounds out our picture of Hemingway.” She added: “Hemingway didn’t know when he left Cuba that he was never coming back. His shoes are still there. It’s as if he just stepped out for a moment.”

Hemingway lived at Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, from 1939 until 1960 — the longest he lived anywhere — and its 15 acres were probably the place where he felt most at home. He left in July 1960, traveled to Spain and then, in very poor health, returned to America. After a brief stay in New York, he moved to Ketchum, Idaho, where in July 1961, suffering from alcoholism, writer’s block and the aftereffects of two African plane crashes in 1954, he took his own life.

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A ticket and telegram from the collection. Ernest Hemingway Papers Collection, Museum Ernest Hemingway, Finca Vigia, San Francisco de Paula, Cuba


After the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, when relations between the United States and Cuba couldn’t have been worse, President John F. Kennedy quietly arranged for Mary Hemingway to travel to Havana and meet with Fidel Castro. The two struck a deal whereby Mrs. Hemingway was allowed to take papers and paintings out of the country and, in return, gave Finca Vigía and its remaining contents to the Cuban people.

The Cuban government had little money for restoration, however, and for decades left the house more or less as it was, a tropical Miss Havisham’s, with a Glenn Miller record on the phonograph, the labels on the half-full Cinzano bottles fading in the sun, the roof leaking, the floors buckling. The remaining papers were moved to the basement, accompanied by a single overworked dehumidifier.

This decline was arrested, starting in 2005, thanks largely to the efforts of the Finca Vigía Foundation, started by Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway’s longtime editor. The foundation also helped arrange for the scanning and preservation of the documents. The preservationists are all American-trained Cubans, and they have gone about their work with more zeal than discernment: The new material includes, for example, dozens of blank sheets of airmail stationery printed with the Hemingway address.

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Stamps on one of Hemingway’s passports. Ernest Hemingway Papers Collection, Museum Ernest Hemingway, Finca Vigia, San Francisco de Paula, Cuba


Letters and telegrams are sometimes filed under the sender’s first name, sometimes the last, and apparently no effort has been made to single out important papers from lesser ones. In the middle of a folder mostly dedicated to Christmas cards is a 1952 letter from the critic Malcolm Cowley in which, flouting the usual conventions of reviewer confidentiality, he tells Hemingway that he has been asked by The Herald Tribune to write about “The Old Man and the Sea,” and leaves little doubt about what he is going to say: “ ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is pretty marvelous — the old man is marvelous, the sea is, too, and so is the fish.”

But the very randomness of this material — a telegram from Archibald MacLeish congratulating Hemingway on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” turns up with Mary Hemingway’s carefully typed hamburger recipes — turns out to be part of its appeal, its reminder that this is how lives are lived, haphazardly.

That Hemingway loved being famous is amply demonstrated here by the scrapbook he kept of congratulatory telegrams he received in October 1954 after winning the Nobel Prize. From Ingrid Bergman: “THE SWEDES ARENT SO DUMB AFTER ALL.” From Toots Shor: “WE LIFTED A FEW TO YOU ALL DAY KEEP DRINKING.”

The several Hemingway passports, besides providing a photographic timeline of him as his hair and mustache go white, attest to his restlessness and wanderlust. So does extensive correspondence with an automobile association about how to ship his Buick Roadmaster from Europe to Havana to the United States.

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A gun license granted by the Cuban authorities in 1950. Ernest Hemingway Papers Collection, Museum Ernest Hemingway, Finca Vigia, San Francisco de Paula, Cuba


There are logs he kept aboard the Pilar, his beloved fishing yacht, and a 1943 note from the American naval attaché in Cuba authorizing him to use some experimental radio apparatus, a reminder that during the war, when he wasn’t chasing after marlin and tarpon, Hemingway was supposed to be on the lookout for German subs.

Some of the most interesting papers, however, belonged to Hemingway’s wife. There is extensive correspondence with Maison Glass, an exporter of luxury foods on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from which she ordered things like fancy olives, turtle soup and French snails, and with the Conard-Pyle Company, a Pennsylvania nursery from which she ordered plants and got advice about how to grow roses in the Cuban climate.

The impression you get is of someone extremely disciplined and well organized. It’s reinforced by a notebook, probably from before the war, when she was a Paris correspondent for The London Daily Express, listing page after page after page of French vocabulary and nuances of French expression.

Apparently from the same period are a couple of mash notes. In one, addressed to “Hepsibah” or “Hepsey,” the writer has apparently been shopping and noticed a new display of sweaters: “And they are sumptuous, Hepsey. … To remember your sweaters and how they suit you … Your bosom under sweaters, blessed bosom, blessed haven.” Ms. Spanier believes that both messages were written not by Hemingway but by a newspaperman named Herb Clark, an old flame of Mary’s in the Paris days.

According to Ms. Wrynn, Mrs. Hemingway, while packing up papers to take back to America, also burned many. Were these Paris notes ones she overlooked, or ones she couldn’t bear to part with? We’ll probably never know.

We may also never know for sure the reason for some numbered notes Hemingway penciled to himself, probably in 1958. Ms. Spanier thinks they are arguments for why he should be allowed to rework some stories from the ‘30s that Esquire wanted to republish 25 years later in an anniversary anthology. They also read like all-purpose writing advice.

“You can phrase things clearer and better,” one note says. The next: “You can remove words which are unnecessary and tighten up your prose.”

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